Spain suspends judicial reform plan that upset Brussels

Spain's government on Thursday froze its proposed controversial reform of a top legal body that critics including Brussels had warned could undermine the judicial system's independence.

Spain suspends judicial reform  plan that upset Brussels
File image of Spain's Supreme Court. Photo: AFP

The reform would have changed the way appointments are made to the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ) which is responsible for naming judges and ensuring the independence of both courts and judges.

“We are going to stop the clock on the reform of the CGPJ in order to reach an agreement with you,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in parliament, addressing the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP).

He did not specify how long that freeze would last.   

Known as Spain's legal watchdog, the CGPJ has 20 members — 12 judges or magistrates and eight lawyers or other jurists — elected by both chambers of the Cortes (parliament).

The reform would have affected the appointment of the 12 judges.   

The council's mandate expired in December 2018 but Sanchez has been unable to push through the appointments for lack of parliamentary support, notably from the PP.

Since then, it has been operating on an interim basis, prompting criticism from the European Union.

'Strong institutions' needed


Under the current legislation, the judges have been appointed by a three-fifths majority vote — which requires backing from the PP — but the judicial reform would have changed that to an absolute majority.

It was proposed by Sanchez's leftwing coalition as a way of circumventing the need for the PP's support.

Having the appointments approved by an absolute majority could allow the coalition to bypass the PP and chose judges of a certain ideological persuasion, whereas under the current system, all parties are compelled to compromise.

Alarm bells began ringing at the end of September when the European Commission singled out Spain in its report on the rule of law for not renewing CGPJ membership as it should have done two years ago.

And it stressed the importance of ensuring that the council “is not perceived as being vulnerable to politicisation”, in a clear nod to the necessary separation of executive and judicial powers.

Speaking to parliament on Thursday, Sanchez said his government would once again seek a compromise with the PP.   

“First and foremost, we need strong, legitimate institutions, so I am appealing to the entire House and particularly the party which has been blocking the renewal of these constitutional institutions,” he said in remarks directed at PP leader Pablo Casado.    

The current impasse is just one aspect of a bitter standoff between the Socialists and their hard-left coalition ally Podemos, and the PP, which started with the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The proposed reform had also sparked concern in part of the judiciary. 

Brussels watching carefully


European Commission spokesman Christian Wigand told AFP Brussels was following the developments in Spain “closely”.   

“Member states must follow EU standards to ensure that judicial independence is not compromised,” he said.

The European Association of Judges (EAJ) had also expressed “great concern” Spain was taking a step backwards with respect to the basic requirements for ensuring judicial independence.

Pushing through with the reform, it warned, would “increase the risk of undue political influence in the appointment of the members of the Judicial Council, damaging the perception of the society of an effective judicial

For Sanchez's government, the worry was that Spain could find itself compared to Hungary and Poland, which have been criticised by Brussels for trying to exert control over the judiciary.

But experts said Madrid should not be put in the same category as Warsaw or Budapest.

“Spain isn't Poland or Hungary,” said Pablo Castillo, an expert in law and political science at Sheffield University in northern England.    

Sanchez's proposal “is not going to lead to a collapse of the rule of law in Spain, although it's hardly supporting the independence of the judiciary,” he told AFP, while admitting the proposal “does echo things that have happened in these two countries”.   

“The question of judicial independence is not black or white, it's a question of nuance.”

By AFP's Marie Giffard

ANALYSIS: How Spain's judicial reform plan is raising a red flag in Brussels

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Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

Well-known faces of Cuba's protest have in recent years gone into exile in Madrid, which is rivalling Miami as a haven for Latin American political opponents.

Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

“Miami has always been the destination of those who suffered from Latin American dictatorships,” Cuban dissident and playwright Yunior García, who went into self-imposed exile in Madrid in November, told AFP.

But now “many Latin Americans are choosing to come to Spain,” added García, one of the organisers of a failed mass protest last year in the Communist-ruled island.

The Spanish capital is especially attractive for an artist and dissident fleeing a dictatorship because of its “bohemian” atmosphere, García said.

Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs as cleaners or waiters — but in recent years prominent exiles have joined the influx.

Award-winning Nicaraguan writer and former vice president Sergio Ramírez and Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López, a former mayor of Chacao, an upmarket district of Caracas, are among those who have moved to Madrid.

“Madrid is the new Miami, the new place where so many hispanics come fleeing dictatorship,” said Toni Cantó, the head of a Madrid regional government body charged with promoting the region as the “European capital of Spanish”.

Many Latin Americans are able to establish themselves easily in Spain because they have double citizenship, in many cases because their ancestors came from the country.

Others like García arrive on a tourist visa and then request asylum.

Sometimes, especially in the case of prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders, the government has rolled out the welcome mat and granted them Spanish citizenship.

Cuban political dissident Carolina Barrero is pictured during an AFP interview in Madrid. Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs, but in recent years prominent exilees have joined the influx. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Good option’

Contacted by AFP, Spain’s central government declined to comment.

But shortly after García arrived in Spain, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told parliament that Latin Americans “share our values, they look naturally to Europe”.

For Cubans, getting a visa to enter the United States has been even more complicated in recent years since Washington closed its consulate in Havana in 2017. It only partially reopened in May.

“Spain is a very good option,” said Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez, who fled to Spain in January when he finally was able to obtain a passport after years of being denied one.

Spain has received previous waves of Cuban dissidents in the past.

Under an agreement between Cuba, Spain and the Catholic Church, in 2010 and 2011, more than 110 Cuban political prisoners arrived in Madrid, accompanied by dozens of relatives.

There are now about 62,000 Cubans officially registered in Spain, with Madrid home to the largest community.

Cuba is “a pressure cooker, and ever time pressure builds” Havana eases it by forcing dissidents into exile, said Alejandro Gonzalez Raga, the head of the Madrid-based Cuban Observatory for Human Rights who fled to Spain in 2008.

Cuban journalist Mónica Baró is pictured at her home in Madrid. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Lost everything’

Cuban independent journalist Mónica Baró said she left Cuba for Madrid in 2021 because she said she could no longer bear the “harassment” of Cuban state security forces.

Madrid shares the same language and has a “shared culture”, as well as a well-established network of Cubans, that has helped her overcome the “traumas” she brought with her, Baro added.

But not knowing if she will ever see her parents, who remained in Cuba, again saddens her.

“When you leave like I did, you have the feeling that you buried your parents,” said Baró, who faces arrest if she returns to Cuba.

García said he welcomed the absence in Madrid of the deep “resentment” and “rage” towards the Cuban regime found in Miami among its much larger community of Cuban exiles, which he said was “natural”.

These are people “who had to leave on a raft, who lost everything they had in Cuba, whose family suffered jail time and sometimes death,” he said.

Madrid on the other hand, provides “tranquility to think things through,” he added.

“I don’t want anger, resentment, to win me over,” García said.